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A Christian perspective on Love

John Breadon's picture

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Is Christian love different?

It's been said that all you need is love. But what is love - and do Christians love any differently, or better, or worse, than anyone else? Sometimes, as a priest, I get involved in conversations with people about ‘How hard it must be to be a priest, because, don't you get sick of having to love people all the time?' My response is usually something like: ‘Well, yes, it is hard. But it's what I try and do, even though I'm always getting it wrong.'


Few words have been more distorted and abused than ‘love', so little wonder we're left feeling confused. And here's something else. Even though talk about love is everywhere - in Hollywood films, Valentine Cards, in the storylines of soap operas and pop songs - we often struggle to find love in the world. This is, perhaps, a result of the ‘nothing sells like bad news' rule: good news stories, stories about love, care and compassion, drop out of sight at the moment the latest terrorist atrocity occurs. This example is instructive, for I would say that real love - and I'll go on to define what I mean by this in a moment - is the direct opposite of rape, terrorism and murder. Such things are about denying and obliterating the existence of other people. Love, if we want to understand it as more than just a passing feeling or whim, must be something to do with making space for others and giving their needs equal footing alongside our own.


Four forms of love

Much of my thinking about love is derived from a small but powerful book by C S Lewis called The Four Loves (1960). In his book Lewis reflects on not one but four different sorts of love. They are affection, eros (sexual), charity (an old-fashioned word for what we might call today ‘sacrificial love'), and friendship. Lewis doesn't set out to rank them in order of importance. They all have their place and, at best, a good human life should make room for them all. But charity is the highest peak in the love mountain range for it demands a lot from us. It's also risky and demands courage and a willingness to go a long way to see a smile on another person's face. Lewis reminds us, however, that all loving is costly; and if it's not, then, think a bit harder about what it is that's going on: ‘We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken ... so be it'. (The Four Loves, p. 112) I find Lewis' division of love helpful. It reminds me that love is so much more than romantic or sexual love. It helps me to recognise that charity-love is where I aim to get to, though I know I get stuck at the affection-love level more often than I'd like to admit. It is, after all, the safest, least risky form of love. Overall, I find that when I act in a loving way to others it generally improves my relationship with them no end. The giving of love somehow generates more love; what goes out has a tendency to come back again with interest.


The love of Jesus

C S Lewis is best known for writing The Chronicles of Narnia and was, if you didn't know already, a Christian. He, like the rest of us Christians, was drawn to how love - in all its forms - was lived out in the life of Jesus. In spite of the fact that he got the whole Christian religion-thing going, Jesus is often Christianity's forgotten man. For instance, many people outside (and inside) the Church wonder where Jesus comes into George Bush's pronouncements about ‘good' and ‘evil' empires, or where love comes into the never-ending debate about homosexuality. When we do manage to get round to interpreting Jesus' words - as reported in the New Testament - rather than listening to those who claim to speak for him - what does he say about love?


My favourite parable (the stories Jesus told his followers to illustrate his beliefs) is the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32). This is the story of a young man who goes out into the world to live it up, large and wild style. Not all goes to plan, however. Eventually he returns home to his father and brother, whom he had left six months earlier in a fit of temper. The prodigal son is worried that his father might be angry with him for blowing all his inheritance money - and with good reason. But nothing of the sort happens. His father, rather than rushing out to meet him with a big stick, greets him with a big hug. He then throws a great big party. Jesus says this is what God is like: all love, forgiveness, mercy. And this is how Jesus treated those he came into contact with, especially the ‘sinners' and outcasts.


Another place to go for evidence about what Jesus thought about love and about the God he called love, are the names he used about God. Like some other Jewish thinkers at that time he liked to call God ‘Abba'. This is an Aramaic word meaning ‘Daddy' or ‘Papa'. I'm drawn to the word because it reveals a more loving God than either Father or Lord does. By using this special word Jesus was letting us in on his relationship with God: God is not some thing that lives high up in the sky. He's as near to you as your closest friend or partner. 


A Christian view of love

Perhaps the most famous Christian words about love come not from the mouth of Jesus but from one his followers, a disciple who lived seventy years or so after he died. It's so good it's worth quoting in full:


God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God', and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (John 1: 16-21)


The point this passage makes is similar to the ideas in C S Lewis' book. Love can't or shouldn't be switched on and off, or dependent upon moods and feelings. Love is not a single torch beam that shines on one thing only, but a wide and all-illuminating presence that warms everything around it. It's quite a challenge, to love like this, but whoever said love was easy?


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